Top 10 things to do in French Guiana

Visiter la Guyane française

Want to visit French Guiana? Between an Equatorial forest populated by amazing animals, a rich history influenced by colonization and rocket launches from the Kourou space center, here are the 8 must-do things to do in French Guiana!

In northeastern South America, nestled between Brazil, Suriname and the Atlantic Ocean, French Guiana is both a region and a French overseas department. Covered 98% by dense equatorial forest – one of the least ecologically fragmented in the world – French Guiana is home to a rich and diverse flora and fauna. In this lush, paradoxical land, centuries-old indigenous villages stand alongside Ariane rockets launched regularly from the Centre Spatial Guyanais, one of France’s and Europe’s aerospace bases.

Covering an area of 83,846 km² and with a population of just 259,865 (2015), French Guiana is France’ s second least populated region after Mayotte. To visit French Guiana is to come face-to-face with breathtaking nature, a cosmopolitan culture – particularly in Cayenne, the capital – and a rich history marked by colonization and the famous bagnes, some of whose prisoners have become the stuff of legend. So, what’s there to do in French Guiana? Here are the top 10 things to do in French Guiana.

1. French Guiana Zoo

Zoo de Guyane

Photo credit: Flickr – gillyan9

As an introduction to Guyana’s incredible endemic fauna, who better than a visit to the Zoo de Guyane? This zoo is home to some 450 animals, including jaguars, sloths, agoutis, crocodiles, howler monkeys, anteaters and numerous birds, such as toucans and macaws.

The zoo is home to a 1,000 m² tropical greenhouse, where visitors of all ages can get up close and personal with Guiana’s iconic species, such as the red ibis, as well as a myriad of surprising and sometimes rare species. The zoo also features themed areas including the caiman ponds, the atel island, the feline lair… One of the best things to do in French Guiana.

2. Salvation Islands

Located fourteen kilometers off the coast of Kourou, the îles du Salut form an archipelago made up of three islets of volcanic origin. Only Île Royale and Île Saint-Joseph are accessible, while Île du Diable, the most northerly, is strictly off-limits due to strong currents.

This is where more than 2,000 convicts were imprisoned in terrible and humiliating conditions. Closed in the mid-20th century, the prisons are now open to visitors. Île Royale, the largest of the three islands and the former administrative headquarters of the colony, is the most visited.

Explore the restored penitentiary buildings or take a stroll on a plant-covered island inhabited by macaws, monkeys and agoutis. To get to the îles du Salut, board a catamaran on the fishermen’s wharf at the end of Avenue General De Gaulle. The trip takes around 90 minutes.

3. Cayenne

Cayenne, Guyane française

Photo credit: Flickr – rustinpc

Located on Guyana’s Atlantic coast, Cayenne is the most densely populated city in French Guiana. Despite its poorly maintained historic buildings, Cayenne is well worth a visit. The city is overlooked by a number of mountains, and the peaks along the shore offer lovely views.

If you’re visiting French Guiana for its beaches, you won’t want to go to Cayenne, which is overgrown with mangroves.

4. The Guiana Space Center

It’s impossible to visit French Guiana without visiting the Guiana Space Center, one of the overseas territory’s star attractions. The Center organizes around twelve rocket launches a year, offering tourists the chance to reserve their place to experience an unforgettable moment live: the launch of an Ariane rocket!

Discover also the Space Museum, retracing man’s epic journey into space, the conquest of the moon and European space programs. Take a trip back in time and space through 7 thematic modules, including the Universe, manned flight, satellites and the future.

5. Trésor and Kaw nature reserves

Located on the south-western flank of the Kaw mountain, and extending over a relatively limited area of 2,500 hectares, the Trésor regional nature reserve offers an environment of staggering biodiversity. The reserve’s particular topographical and geographical situation favors a rich ecosystem of animal and plant species, many of which are endemic. Much larger in comparison, but less easily accessible than Trésor, the neighboring Kaw Roura marshes reserve covers an area of over 90,000 hectares.

Accessible only by river, the reserve is essentially made up of marshland with mangrove, flooded savannah and tropical rainforest ecosystems. Visitable by pirogue or floating carbet, the reserve is home to an exceptional fauna of rare species such as the black caiman, from the same family as the American alligator, as well as a rich diversity of birds including the splendid red ibis.

6. A boat trip

Une balade en bateau en Guyane

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Erik Klietsch

Sailing is one of the best ways to discover the beauty of French Guiana. And it doesn’t have to be ocean cruising, but rather the discovery of the sumptuous Amazon rainforest. Rivers are the main means of transport in French Guiana.

So it would be a shame not to hire a boat in French Guiana, and miss out on discovering this magnificent setting!

Find a boat for rent in French Guiana

7. Hattes beach

Located in Awala-Yalimapo, on the north-western edge of French Guiana, Les Hattes beach is known as the world’s most important nesting site for giant leatherback turtles. During the high season, from April to July, hundreds of leatherback turtles come to the beach to lay their eggs, which hatch between July and September.

Five kilometers long, this beach is also an important nesting site for green turtles and, on occasion, olive ridley and hawksbill turtles. The beach offers a relaxing setting, tables for eating and you can even hang your hammock between two palm trees. One of the most pleasant beaches to visit in French Guiana.

8. Carnival in French Guiana

One of the major events in Guyanese life, Carnaval de Guyane takes place in Cayenne between Epiphany at the end of January and Ash Wednesday in February or March. It also takes place in Kourou and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, but Cayenne remains the best place to celebrate Carnival.

Originating in Guyanese Creole culture, Carnival has its origins in the colonial practice of European-style Carnival, which was forbidden to slaves. However, it was practiced clandestinely by the slaves, who saw it as a way of regaining a little freedom and mocking the colonists.

Today, metropolitan, Brazilian and Chinese communities take part, offering spectators a superb spectacle of costumes as burlesque as they are colorful. One of the must-sees in French Guiana if you have the opportunity to visit during this period.

9. The penal colony of Saint-Laurent-Du-Maroni

Camp de Saint-Laurent-Du-Maroni en Guyane

Photo credit: Flickr – Jean-Marie

Located in the border town of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, the Transportation camp was once a penal colony designed to provide temporary care for prisoners upon their arrival in French Guiana, before they were transferred to penal colonies throughout the country.

In its day, the bagne was home to famous ex-convicts such as Alfred Dreyfus and Henri Charrière, known as « Papillon ». While the lush natural surroundings seem to soothe the place today, the overtones of its dark and brutal history continue to haunt the site. Self-guided tours are free, and you can hire the services of English-speaking guides whose tours are more detailed. Look for Papillon’s name engraved in one of the cells.

10. The beaches of Remire-Montjoly

If you’re tempted by sunbathing on a sandy beach, look no further than the beaches of Remire-Montjoly. Dotted with coconut palms and fringed by lush nature, these beaches offer a wild yet pleasant setting for relaxing on the sand.

Admittedly, the silty waters are not ideal for swimming, but they are enough to cool off after a hike in the area, for example on the magnificent Rorota Trail. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of sea turtles during the egg-laying season.

How do I get to French Guiana?

French Guiana is located on the American continent. During your stay in French Guiana, you’ll land at Félix Éboué airport (CAY), the territory’s only airport. You can fly to French Guiana from Paris to Cayenne with Air Caraïbes. Flights depart from Paris Orly (ORY), and Air France also offers flights to French Guiana. Daily connections are available. You can also depart from Bordeaux, Lyon or Marseille, with a stopover at Paris Orly before flying to the beaches of French Guiana.

When to go to French Guiana? The best time to visit French Guiana is during the dry season, between August and November.

Where to stay in French Guiana?

Finding accommodation in French Guiana won’t be as straightforward as when you book accommodation in Rome or Paris. For example, there are no youth hostels, or even camping sites. The best option is to stay in carbets d’hôtes, which are traditional dwellings (palm-leaf roofs, wooden frames with natural fibers…) set in the heart of nature. They can be found in the forest (generally on the banks of a river, accessible only by river), in a Native American village, on the savannah or on the beach. Carbets d’hôtes are generally run by private individuals.

Homestay rentals are also available, via Airbnb, generally in major cities such as Cayenne, Kourou, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni and all coastal towns. Classic hotels are also available in these destinations.

Main photo credit: Flickr – Alexander Stirn

Map of hotels and accommodation – French Guiana